The Yahoo Sports product team gathered in the office for each of the first three NFL Sundays this year. Together with the digital media services of its corporate owner, Verizon, Yahoo is live-streaming up to 16 NFL games per week for a mobile audience. In addition to Thursday and Monday night games, that meant long hours at headquarters on the weekend. Last Sunday, though, after three glitch-free weeks, the team’s senior director of product management, Parker Emmott, finally allowed himself to monitor the technical infrastructure from home.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’ve actually had very little to do and that we’ve actually just got to watch football,” Emmott said. Although his team has been ready for troubleshooting, Yahoo’s preparations have put them ahead of the curve.
Yahoo’s first foray into live-streaming happened in 2015, when the media company spent a reported $15 million to be the exclusive carrier of a Bills-Jaguars game in London. (The game was on linear TV only in the Buffalo and Jacksonville markets.) That pilot went well, and Yahoo repeated the endeavor for a 2017 London game.
The NFL and Verizon agreed to a five-year, $2 billion deal last December intended to boost the league’s reach, particularly among younger demographics and cord cutters. The new mobile rights deal, which began with last year’s postseason, allows all users to stream games for free even without authenticating a cable subscription. Previously, only Verizon customers had that option. The Yahoo Sports and NFL apps are carrying all games this year (although viewers will only be able to see what would normally be on in their home market).
Yahoo set records for app usage in each of the first three weeks of the NFL season, inching that mark forward by three to five percent each time, a compound rate of steady growth. (Data for Week 4 was not available at press time.) Emmott said Yahoo built an entirely in-house solution: everything from the signal input, to the live operations manager, to the encoding system, to the video player configuration.
The app adjusts its bitrate based on the complexity of what’s on the screen, feeding extra bandwidth to game action and tapering for studio talking heads. Emmott said Yahoo has been maintaining 60 frames per second of 1080 HD action with an average streaming bit rate of six megabytes per second. Adding the scalability of Verizon Digital Media Services has also enhanced the Yahoo product.
“They’re all purpose-built for one another, and when you sum-total all of the components within a video stack, that really does make a big difference,” Emmott said.
Once football fans are lured to the app for live game action, Yahoo of course wants them to stay. Its companion fantasy football app attracts about seven million users annually and is “a real foundation piece,” said Geoff Reiss, GM of Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that oversees Yahoo and AOL. Since this summer, Yahoo has added complementary programs, apps, and features.
“The video piece is phenomenal, but the idea here is, how do we start to put together an overall network approach to how we cover football and how do we take that approach for other key sports like NBA?” Reiss said.
Back on Jun. 4, Yahoo launched The Rush, a two-minute morning show that covers “the top stories in sports that a sports fan must know matched to the social and viral moments that are peaking,” said head of content Sarah Crennan. An offshoot, The Fantasy Rush, also launched closer to football season. Both are hosted and distributed by Snapchat. A third show, The Spin, offers Yahoo journalists—such as NFL writers Kimberly Martin and Terez Paylor—a video format for their work. A weekly predictions-based game, Yahoo Fantasy Slate, goes live every Wednesday.
Mostly Football also airs Thursday evenings before kickoff and stars retired tight end Martellus Bennett alongside James Davis, Ben Lyons, and fantasy expert Liz Loza. The show lasts 30 to 40 minutes with clips disseminated widely on demand and via social platforms. Mostly Football mixes deep NFL analysis with a range of activities Bennett finds interesting, from sumo wrestling to Quidditch.
“We’re really trying to cover football in a different way than it’s being done right now,” Crennan said.
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Reiss wants Yahoo to evolve along the same trajectory as the rest of the media business, if not in front of it. That means continuing to enhance these OTT streams, produce video content, build games and fantasy sports, and optimize all mobile experiences. (Interestingly, he said more fantasy football drafts have taken place on mobile devices than computers the last two years.)
And then there’s the potential to bid for broadcast rights. Just as Yahoo hosted the London games, Twitter and now Amazon have picked up Thursday Night Football rights in the U.S., and DAZN has snagged rights in other countries. The potential for a streaming partner to air games exclusively is growing. Yahoo is working on the necessary back-end infrastructure that would offer a smooth delivery of that content.
Reiss talked to SportTechie last week, before ProFootballTalk reported the possibility that the NFL would opt-out of its DirecTV Sunday Ticket agreement after the 2019 season. That could add more attractive inventory for Yahoo to snap up. But when asked about Yahoo’s future interest, Reiss was non-committal.
“I think the goal here long-term is to be able to create experiences for folks that are going to be meaningfully differentiated from what they can get from other places,” Reiss said. “From our perspective, the ability to get football regardless of your carrier, regardless of whether or not you have a cable subscription or not, and being able to take that football wherever you are is a decent starting point for that differentiation.
“We are looking to do everything we can over the course of the next couple of years, as we get into the lead-up of when the next generation of sports rights go out there, to give us some degree of optionality as to how we’re going to approach that.
“That’s not a yes, that’s not a no. Our job is to build the business and put us in position to do so if that’s something we wanted to do.”